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Dotcomical? Dressing casually has become a trademark of Silicon Valley--usually just a T-shirt, jeans and running shoes--although Christian Ferro prefers his own version of the uniform. Ferro, an engineer with Redback Networks, recalls that he came to his first interview dressed in a tie and slacks, but was told, 'This isn't that kind of company.'

Jeans Blues

Have workers in the valley slipped into something a little too comfortable?

By Dara Colwell

CHRISTIAN FERRO'S "Magical Jacket" could tell a tall tale if it could talk. The washed-out denim sheath, embroidered in green, red, yellow and pale pink thread, with dangling leather tassels harking back to the '80s fastened to its sides, has traveled twice to Europe--leaving Ferro behind. The jacket hit Grateful Dead concerts, exchanged hands for rent, and once, it even surfaced unexpectedly in a stranger's trunk. Today Ferro's colorful cowboy duds, draped duly across his shoulders, are conspicuous next to his typical office uniform: sand-colored

Birkenstocks, rolled-up khakis and a gray T-shirt emblazoned with his company's logo.

"When I came to my interview dressed in a tie and slacks," Ferro, an engineer at Redback Networks, says, chuckling at the memory, "I was told, 'This isn't that kind of company.'" While Ferro dons slacks for those rare occasions when he drops by a customer's site, his usual office gear is extremely low-key--and, when he finds time to do laundry, clean. "You don't want to give the wrong impression by being overdressed," he says. "I'd be taken for a sales or marketing person."

Farro, like many an engineer, says his take on clothing is purely functional: dress in order to get the job done. As his colleagues circle throughout the office sporting sneakers, logo-embedded T-shirts, Hawaiian prints and cutoff shorts, his sartorial status is a given. Within Silicon Valley, casual business dress (often minus the "business") has spanned the corporate spectrum: engineers are doing it, CEOs are doing it and corporate America, it seems, has quickly followed suit. As white-collar workers continue to loosen their ties and ditch their collars, "casual Fridays" in the workplace have become a common, everyday affair. While the theory behind dressing down is simple--employees feel more relaxed, liberated and creative--a number of fashion experts fear our interpretation of "casual" has become too broad. And ... well, sloppy.

"There's a lot of confusion about casual dress codes, with people showing up for work in outfits they should walk their dogs in," says Sherry Maysonave, author of Casual Power, a tome devoted to teaching people how to dress down--for success. The Austin-based image consultant has coached business people and politicians on fashion techniques since 1982. "The tech world operates on a different set of rules from most industries, but dressing casual has its pitfalls. It opens the door to poor judgment."

TGIF

WITH LEVI STRAUSS, GAP and Esprit conveniently headquartered up the coast, the exact origins of the dressing down trend aren't too difficult to trace. In 1992, Levi's launched an aggressive marketing campaign to promote casual business clothing in the workplace, sending a detailed "how-to" guide to 30,000 human resource managers.

While Levi's has long influenced the way Americans dress, its promotion of business casual cleverly bolstered what had become an ingrained practice in the valley. As far back as the 1950s, computer pioneer Hewlett-Packard introduced "casual Fridays," because Fridays were when everyone in the company pitched in at the warehouse, packaging goods for shipment. And by the mid-1970s, Apple Computer's Steve Wozniak threw button-down oxfords and tradition aside, logging odd hours decked in a T-shirt and jeans. In fact, T-shirts became such an Apple convention that former software engineer Gordon Thygeson penned a book on the subject, documenting the company's development through 20 years of symbolic T-shirts.

In the early 1990s, the Friday ditching of the pinstripe suit crept into corporate America and today, 51 percent of companies with more than 5,000 employees are going casual five days a week, according to the Society for Human Resource Management. Why the popularity? The perks of casual dress seem self-evident: workers don't have to worry about being uncomfortable, employers have a productive, happy staff and it's a win-win situation for everyone. But now that the pendulum has swung from IBM's archetypal navy suits to baseball caps, some companies--and fashion experts, in particular--are learning that everyone interprets "casual" differently, if not loosely.

"Now we're the valley of the khakis!" jokes Colleen Abrie, a Campbell-based image consultant who advises workers from Sun Microsystems, Hewlett-Packard and Adobe. "I don't think people really understand what professional business casual is. The average person looks like they rolled out of a hamper."

Because business casual is not clear-cut, Abrie is willing to give certain sectors the benefit of the doubt. "It really depends on who they're interfacing with and who their customers are--whether they're doing most of their business inside the company culture or with clients," she says. But Abrie does feel some basics are being overlooked in the trend to go casual. "In high tech, I find personal grooming is not a general practice," she says. "You see sweat stains, missing buttons, and some people don't understand that washing their glasses is a good thing. The brainchildren of this valley have got a license to be as frumpy as they want."

And let's not forget the ladies--they're in there, too. "Too much cleavage, too short a skirt, bras with nipples showing through--this generation lacks an education in corporate culture," Abrie says. Maysonave immediately concurs. "A lot of women make the mistake of dressing for happy hour at 8am."

Appearance Matters

TORN JEANS, CUTOFFS, sweat suits, tight-fitting lycra tops, scuffed shoes, stained and faded T-shirts, crumpled blouses--all these are marks of what Maysonave terms "Casual Confusion Syndrome," the disorder affecting those who falter at the wardrobe. With a decided lack of enforced casual dress codes, many employers and their employees face a perplexing dilemma: what, exactly, is too casual? Whether it's sporty, chic, active, business, grunge or bare-your-midriff beach casual, what's a well-meaning worker to do? And more importantly, what's appropriate?

According to Maysonave, human beings respond to visual cues. "In the first 30 seconds, people make three assumptions about you: education level, socio-economic status and desirability," she says. While Silicon Valley bends the mold on income's relationship to visual presentation, Maysonave states we tend to associate well-dressed individuals with intelligence, attractiveness and achievement. "Business casual is really a relaxed version of traditional business dress. It's still a professional, tailored look," she says. "I'd like to eradicate sloppy casual from the workplace."

When it comes to fashion, Maysonave treads the middle road. Many of her cohorts, including an association of retailers who kicked off last month's "Dress Up Thursdays" campaign, are practically evangelical in their distaste for dressing easy.

"This has gone too far," says Judith Rasband, founder of Conselle Institute of Image Management in Provo, Utah, and a campaign acolyte. "This is symptomatic of the entire casualization and loss of manners, morals, productivity and civility in our world."

Of course, the "Dress Up Thursdays" grassroots movement is as much about countering weekend-clothes-with-that-weekend-attitude as it is about boosting lagging sales of men's suits. But Rasband, who has patented her own professional style scale to counter America's nosedive "down the tube in a T-shirt," has definitely found her cause. "This is very emotional and very controversial for a lot of people," she says. "There's nothing vain or frivolous about dress; there's value in the way it affects the individual and the achievement of his goals."

A case in point, Rasband feels Bill Gates wouldn't have been so vehemently attacked had he been wearing something other than a polo shirt to work. "It made him visually vulnerable," she says. "What's the first thing that changed when he went to court? He put on a suit to look like the big boys coming after him."

Highly Suitable

SILICON VALLEY'S entrepreneurial spirit, that "roll up your sleeves and let's get down to business" mind-set, has had its unique bearing on fashion. Because casual dress was never about appearing to be successful, the "nerd" prototype emerged--alongside those soiled T-shirts--eventually becoming the local uniform. "I think men in Silicon Valley are realizing they don't want to be labeled with that 'N-word,'" says Linda Buckman, a personal shopper from Woodside who is president of the Association of Image Consultants International in San Francisco. "Because the competition is stiff, they're now looking at how they pitch their story. It's very important to have a look together."

Buckman, who had just breezed back from a 2-week business trip to Europe, caters to top CEOs from companies such as Handspring, Spectrum Investments and Broadvision. She says the positive side of the dressing down movement was that it paved the way for people to explore fashion on their own terms. Not always successfully, but on their own terms. Now, she sees a shift toward the more style-conscious. "I think some companies are worried that productivity level is down and there's not enough separation from a high-level executive and the people who work for him," she says. "I think we've gone from 'we can wear whatever we want' to something a little more structured."

And the facts may bear her out. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, which has received complaints that casual dress fosters a casual attitude, casual dress in the workplace has begun to drop, from 95 to 87 percent this last year. And sales at Gap, one of the biggest winners in the casual market, have begun to decline, prompting the company to hand out consumer coupons for the first time.

"Dress is a powerful business tool," Maysonave writes in her book. "To win--and to stay on top--always power up when you dress down."

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From the October 19-25, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. MetroActive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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